Distracted Driving Solutions Are Available, Tech Companies Say at FCC Workshop

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Nov. 30 print edition of Transport Topics.

Representatives of several high-tech firms said they already are marketing, or soon will offer, systems designed to prevent motorists from texting and talking on cell phones while driving their vehicles.

The officials discussed their products while speaking at a Federal Communications Commission workshop on distracted driving on Nov. 20.

The new technologies range from software applications loaded onto Global Positioning System-activated, smart cell phones, to systems operated by wireless providers that disable cell phones when a driver is behind the wheel.

“Technology created the problem. Technology needs to find a solution,” Jerry Schaffer, chief operating officer of Drive Safely Corp., a company that offers a wireless provider-based anti-messaging technology.

Although some of the software and hardware technologies are difficult for a cell phone user to defeat, none are yet foolproof, company representatives said.

The workshop, which explored innovations in technology and applications designed to eliminate or significantly reduce the problem of distracted driving, was held in Washington, D.C.

While most of the workshop presenters touted the promise of technology to help reduce the number of distracted-driving-related fatalities, several said that tough laws and educational campaigns also are needed to reduce the nearly 6,000 estimated annual deaths caused by motorists who text and talk on their phones while driving.

“I view this technology as an enabler to help people do what they should be doing,” said Ira Keltz, a deputy chief in the FCC’s office of engineering and technology.

Bill Stack, vice president of business development for Aegis Mobility, said his company’s software, DriveAssist, helps manage cell communication by preventing and controlling incoming and outgoing text messages, calls and Internet access when a cell phone user is driving.

The company said the software runs on the subscriber’s mobile phone and automatically determines if a driver is behind the wheel.

Stack said the system picks up on incoming calls when it detects the user is driving a vehicle, and sends a recorded message such as, “Tom’s driving right now and will call you back.”

Mark Thirman, vice president of business development for Illume Software, said beginning in December his company plans to introduce iZup, a user downloaded GPS-based application that locks a mobile device in “safety mode” when it travels at a speed of 5 miles an hour or faster. When in safety mode, all text messages are stored and calls are automatically put to voice mail until the driver stops the car.

The application also prohibits the user from making calls and sending text messages while the phone is in safety mode, Thirman said.

Other systems discussed at the workshop included Key2SafeDriving, a system with software and hardware components developed by Safe Driving Systems, and a keyboard locking software developed by ZoomSafer.

Michael Petricone, senior vice president of government affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association, said the new technologies discussed at the workshop were only the “tip of the iceberg.”

However, Petricone urged government agencies and lawmakers not to enact overly broad cell- phone blocking regulations and laws but to “let the marketplace work.”

Kathleen Marvaso, a spokeswoman for AAA, said that texting and cell phone laws alone will not be enough to stop distracted driving.

“It needs to become socially unacceptable,” Marvaso said, “but we hope that technology will help fill the enforcement gap.”

John Ulczycki, a group vice president at the National Safety Council, said that while texting and phone calls while driving are not the most dangerous form of distracted driving, they are the most common.

“You’re not going to see 100 million people putting on their make-up, and you’re not going to see 100 million people reading the paper while driving,” Ulczycki said. “You will see 100 million people talking on a cell phone while driving.”

Although so far, the new technologies have been designed primarily with passenger cars and light trucks in mind, the new technology could be used by truckers using cell phones.

The Obama administration said in October that it intends to move to ban cell-phone texting by truck drivers and to restrict the use of other in-cab communications units, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

American Trucking Associations supports a ban on texting while driving and supports the safe use of cell phones, said Clayton Boyce, an ATA spokesman.